A CONVERSATION WITH CRISTINA GARCÍA
Scott Shibuya Brown is a writer and professor at
California State University, Northridge.
Scott Shibuya Brown: What inspired you to write
the novel? How and why did you decide to write about
the Chinese experience in Cuba?
Cristina García: When I was growing up in New
York, my parents took me to my .rst Chinese-Cuban
restaurant on the Upper West Side. A Chinese waiter
came over, took our order in Spanish, and to my utter
delight, I was able to get Cuban black beans with my
pork-fried rice. I thought this was the greatest thing
that ever happened to me. But when I asked my parents
how and why the Chinese and the Cuban dishes
could go together like this, they couldn’t tell me. So
this book, in part, is an exploration of “why?” In addition,
my own daughter is part Japanese, part Cuban,
part Guatemalan, and part Russian Jew, and I’ve
become interested over the years in compounded
identities such as hers . . . not just those people trying
to .gure out one hyphen but multiple hyphens.
SSB: Was it dif.cult to write about Chinese history
and culture? Did you have any reluctance about taking
CG: It was extremely dif.cult for me because my protagonist
was not only a male and Chinese but from
the nineteenth century and transposed to Cuba. I had
to learn a tremendous amount about Chinese culture
and history, as well as Cuban colonial times, and I
had to .ght self-charges of fraud all along the way.
What was probably most useful for me was reading a
great deal of Chinese poetry in translation, both for
the sensibility and cultural preoccupations that it
offered. Even so, I had to work very hard to enter the
bloodstream of my character, Chen Pan, more from
the outside in than the other way around. I got to
know him slowly and painfully but ultimately in a
deep and satisfying way. Constantly, I questioned my
ability to do his story justice and with authenticity. I
was so concerned that I ran my book past several
experts just to make sure I’d gotten it right. To me,
the book is ultimately a 120-year dialogue between
Cuba and Asia.
SSB: How did you conceive the novel? Was it done in
terms of character or a certain milieu and history that
you wanted to write about?
CG: The book started out as being Domingo’s story.
Originally, I had conceived of it as a novel about Vietnam
and the complications for a soldier of mixed race
.ghting for the Americans there. But as I delved further
into Domingo’s background, I grew more and
more interested in the story of his great-grandfather,
Chen Pan, and his travails coming to Cuba in the
1850s. So over time the back story became the main
story and Domingo ended up as more of an echo of his
SSB: What are some of the things that you discovered
about Cuba and China in writing this? What surprised
you in the course of your research?
CG: This may sound naïve but what surprised me
most was the extent to which slavery, mostly from
Africa but also from China and elsewhere, fueled the
Cuban economy in the nineteenth century. It’s disturbing
how the island’s vibrant culture was forged under such brutality. Now it’s never far from my
thoughts when I think and write about Cuba. I also
was surprised to learn that the Chinese participated
in the various wars for independence. They very
quickly took on the nationalist cause and fought as
long and hard for Cuban independence as anybody.
There were many Chinese war heroes.
SSB: Where does the title come from and what does
CG: It’s a bit of an homage to the Chinese myth of the
monkey king, a picaresque tale about a brilliant monkey
who did everything possible to ensure his immortality.
He became such a nuisance that the gods .nally
complained directly to the Buddha, who had him sealed
under a mountain for .ve hundred years. With this
title, I’m exploring the notion of immortality, how legacies
get passed on from generation to generation, and
how we’re always beholden to our origins.
SSB: So far, you’ve written almost exclusively on the
theme of family. How does this novel differ from your
previous two regarding that theme?
CG: I think this novel is painted on a bigger canvas.
It covers large periods of time, broad social movements,
and wars in two centuries. Yet at the same
time I wanted to retain an intimacy with the characters
and their struggles. I thought it would be inter-
esting to explore the notion of identity traveling
through the .esh, a concept I came across in the
poetry of the Brazilian writer Carlos Drummond de
Andrade. What do we inherit, not just physically but
emotionally, psychologically, temperamentally? Does
the past suffuse the present like a kind of water
table? These were among my many obsessions writing
SSB: How would you describe Chen Pan in terms of
his character, his desires, his motivations?
CG: I see Chen Pan as an extraordinary man for his
time. He was the son of a failed poet who never quite
.t in and struggled against his wife’s disapproval.
Chen Pan loved and admired his father deeply. What
makes an ordinary wheat farmer sign a contract to go
halfway across the world on the remote chance of getting
rich and changing his fortune? Chen Pan was not
only adventurous, but also unusually open-minded.
He didn’t care much what other people thought of
him. It was his father’s sharing of his time and his
beloved poetry with Chen Pan that ultimately made
him so special. For all his strengths, he was also a
SSB: How do you see him? Is he a Chinese man in
Cuba, a Chinese-Cuban, or is he simply part of the
mix of Cuban people?
CG: At the end of the book, Chen Pan talks about
belonging neither to China nor to Cuba entirely. He’s
lost most of his Chinese and yet his Spanish is still
quite fractured and heavily accented. He belongs
somewhere between both worlds, but probably a little
closer to Cuba. In the end, I think he gave his heart to
Cuba (partly through the love of his wife) and that’s
where his legacy remains.
SSB: The fate of the women here seems unusually
harsh. Chen Fang has to pose as a boy in China, loses
her child, and is eventually imprisoned during the
Cultural Revolution. Caridad dies and Lucrecia only
escapes her fate with a delicate luck. Were you aware
of this while writing the characters? Is there a larger
theme being writ here?
CG: I think these were not unusual fates for women
of these times and places—and in fact, for many
women today in various parts of the world. I had no
ulterior motive for making my female characters so
oppressed except to stay close to their reality. I
wanted very much to make their dire situations come
SSB: Domingo seems like such a lost soul. What’s his
place in the novel?
CG: Domingo is a twenty-first-century man in the
twentieth century. I had to ask myself what identity
meant when it’s such a mix. And are the ways in
which we discuss identity still meaningful or are they
becoming obsolete? In Domingo’s time, compounded
identities such as his were still uncommon. His confusion
is further complicated by his moving from Cuba
to New York and then to Vietnam in a few short years.
He really doesn’t know who he is or where he belongs.
That would be another book entirely. In fact, that was
the book I originally set out to write. Maybe I still
SSB: Was it difficult writing about men after your
novels, which were centered mainly on
CG: Yes, to my surprise. Before I had my own daughter,
I remember arguing vociferously for nurture over
nature in terms of child development. After I saw my
own daughter clomping around in feathered mules at
the age of three, I understood that nature had a lot
more to do with identity than I’d previously believed.
The same thing happened to me writing about men.
How hard could it be? I thought. What’s the big deal?
What’s the big difference? It turned out to be inordinately
dif.cult. For me, the men were harder to
access and impossible to take for granted. I had to
question every sentence I wrote in a way I never had
to with my crazy Cuban women. They were already
familiar to me. In fact, it’s all I can do to escape them.
SSB: With the exception of the man who provides
Chen Pan with a letter of domicile, the Spanish in
Cuba are not portrayed very sympathetically. What
are your feelings on this?
CG: I suppose I share with Chen Pan a disdain for
colonial imperatives and impositions. This also comes
through in the Chen Fang section when the Japanese
invade Shanghai. And it appears in my previous
books, as well.
SSB: In the end, how do you think Chen Pan understands
his life? What does he do with his knowledge of
CG: There’s a scene toward the end of the novel where
Chen Pan is talking to his grandson, Pipo, and tells
him that all one can do is to live each day well, and that
in the end the cumulative effect of that will be a largely
satisfying life. I think Chen Pan, in his way, always
tried to live like this, to do right by his family and
friends and associates, and to appreciate the details
around him. I think he also understood that what he
passed on was just as important as how he himself
lived. Ultimately, through him and his descendants, I
was interested in exploring the nature of inheritance.
SSB: This is a novel of fragmented narratives, much
like your other two novels. Is there a particular reason
you choose to write in this form?
CG: As much as I’ve enjoyed the great nineteenthcentury
novels written in the stentorian voice of the
authorial omniscient, I mistrust it. I don’t believe any
one voice can tell the whole truth of a story. In my
opinion, you need several people, at minimum, to
even begin to approach something resembling the
truth. To me, a story is always subject to competing
realities. I try to capture something of that in the way
I write my books. Ambiguity is generally more honest
SSB: In terms of scope, this is your most far-reaching
novel, yet paradoxically, it’s also your most condensed.
How did this come about and what dif.culties
did this present?
CG: I wanted very much to avoid the model of the
exhaustive family saga. Nothing bores me more. I was
interested in writing on a “need to know” basis, a tale
distilled to its very essence. I wanted to offer just what a
reader would need to move forward, nothing in excess. I
wanted the narrative to move forward more by juxtaposition
and imaginative leaps than by endless detail.
I cut an enormous amount of background yet I hope,
somehow, that the knowledge has still informed the
work. What isn’t there, in my opinion, is as important
as what remains. In the end, I was hoping the story
would come off more like a series of prose poems or
musical movements than a conventional, linear novel.
SSB: It’s interesting you bring up music. In the Los
Angeles Times review of the book, the critic refers to
Miles Davis and writes, “Like the trumpeter, García
has a rare gift for concentrating beauty by leaving
things out.” What are your thoughts on that?
CG: I love Miles Davis.